Yoga Nidra Bedtime Story

Neal Pollack teaches his son yoga nidra, the "yoga of sleep," and witnesses it's sure results.
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Neal Pollack teaches his son yoga nidra, the "yoga of sleep," and witnesses it's sure results.

For years, the only time my son showed any interest in yoga was when he wanted something from me. Then he’d say, “dad, teach me yoga.” So we’d run through a Sun Salutation or two and then do about 30 seconds of quiet meditation, at which point he figured he’d earned his whipped cream with sprinkles. He didn’t really want to learn anything, understandably. Yoga wasn’t cartoons, or Minecraft, or even kung fu, which he practiced three times a week. Ten-year-olds like to kick things, not sit quietly with their breath. Yoga was something daddy did while sitting on a blanket in the living room, and that wasn’t cool.

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But this was my kid, my only one. I understood too well how he worked, and I knew that yoga could help him with his restless mind, as it continually helps me with mine. But I struggled with a point of entry. Then I stumbled into yoga nidra.

The nidra, loosely translated as “yogic sleep,” is a form of deep meditation designed to bring you into a state of pure awareness and self-discovery. It’s a powerful psychological tool that has helped people for milennia. I first discovered it when I was doing a piece for YJ on yoga for military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Soon I began collecting nidra recordings, trying them out on myself from time to time. Some of the recordings were cheesier than others--I hope to never have to hear recorded flute music again--but there was no denying their gentle effectiveness.

So when my favorite teacher in Austin offered a workshop in teaching yoga nidra, I signed up immediately. I wanted to learn this ancient art. It wasn’t a comprehensive seminar. Anyone who’s taken a yoga training knows that four hours is barely enough time to get through a couple of printouts. But I still picked up the basic structure of a nidra, some terminology, and a few tips about tailoring a session to a specific audience.

When I got home that afternoon, I said to my son, “Today I learned how to hypnotize people into a magical yoga trance.”

“Ooh,” he said. “I want to try that!”

It was a bit of a reductive description, but I’d finally found some yoga that interested him.

A few weeks passed. Occasionally, he’d ask me to “yoga hypnotize” him, but stuff always came up. We never got around to the procedure.

But Father's Day was approaching, and I wanted to be a yoga dad. When I picked my son up at a friend’s the Saturday before, I said to him,

“I’m going to yoga hypnotize you tonight.”

“Cool,” he said.

The worst thing that could happen was that he’d make fun of me. At best, he could receive some of the practice’s subtle effects. Most likely, the effects would be totally neutral. It didn’t seem like I was entering a losing situation.

When bedtime arrived, I had him lay down on his bed while I sat on the floor, halfway across the room. Following my script carefully, as I’d learned in my workshop, I had him set a sankalpa, or “inspired intention,” which I described to him as “your fondest wish that you hope to come true.” But I had him do it in the present tense, as though it were already a fact, and told him to hold it close to his heart and not tell anyone else.

Well, now I sounded like a damn hippie. My dad never led me through a yoga nidra. This was the weirdest New Age bedtime story ever. But I proceeded anyway.

Next, I guided him through his physical self, having him contract and release, in order, his legs, arms, face, glutes, and whole body. This was followed by a quick meditation, where I had him visualize each of his body parts from the top of his head down to his feet. He seemed perfectly relaxed when that was done, so I moved on to a short guided breath meditation.

Then it was time for the most complicated part of the nidra, in which I had him imagine various states of being, happiness, sadness, heat, cold, groundedness, airiness, each for about 15 seconds. I told him to imagine himself at his most brilliant, and also at his most ordinary. He was to hold each thought for a breath, and then let it dissipate with the exhale.

He lay there calmly, perfectly still. I wondered if it was working on him, if I was doing a good job. I supposed that if it weren’t, he’d be giggling, or complaining, or both. So I kept going.

I asked him visualize a beautiful place that he loves, and told him to share it, in his mind, with someone special to him. Finally, I had him imagine a moment in his life that had brought him ultimate joy. After that, I asked him to restate his sankalpa, or intention, again. And then all was quiet in the room.

“How was that?” I asked.

“Good,” he said.

“Do you feel relaxed?”

“OK,” he said, and then he started to snore.

The yoga nidra had once again been deployed to calm a restless mind. My son was completely, deeply asleep. The fact that he’d stayed up an hour past his bedtime watching a movie with us probably had something to do with it, but I still felt positive about the whole thing. For the first time, I’d achieved yoga dadness.

 This post originally appeared, in somewhat different form, on Yoga Dork.